Talaat Pasha: Father of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide
Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2018
Hans-Lukas Kieser, previously based in Switzerland and now residing at the University of Newcastle in Australia, is a prominent scholar on late Ottoman and modern Turkish history. He has written extensively on the Armenian Genocide, including the co-authored volumes Armenian Genocide and the Shoah (2002) and the bilingual The Armenian Genocide, Turkey and Europe (2006). His latest book is the first major academic study on Mehmed Talaat (aka Talaat Pasha), the main architect of the Armenian Genocide.
We have seen a large number of survivors’ memoirs such as Aurora Mardiganian’s Ravished Armenia and Grigoris Balakian’s Armenian Golgotha and key witness accounts such as Henry Morgenthau’s Ambassador Morgenthau’s Story. When studying genocide, it is essential to begin and end with the victims of genocide. We need to know what happened to them, both short-term and long-term. That being said, to fully understand the causes of any genocide, one must also study the motivations and actions of the main perpetrators. Just as we analyze Hitler to comprehend how and why the Holocaust happened, so, too, we explore the lives of the Young Turk dictators to understand more fully the causes of the Armenian Genocide.
Talaat (1874-1921), along with Ismail Enver and Ahmed Djemal, formed the Young Turk triumvirate that ruled over the Ottoman Empire during World War I. Together, they ordered the mass deportations and killings of the Armenians, particularly in that deadly year of 1915. Kieser’s 532 page epic volume explores tumultuous times: Talaat’s early personal roots in the European part of the Ottoman Empire as it continued to fragment; he and his colleagues’ coming to power in the 1908 revolution and 1913 coup; the Young Turk regime’s momentous decision to join the German military alliance and to enter the war against the Triple Entente of Tsarist Russia, England and France. The book outlines Talaat’s rejection of the old Ottoman semi-pluralist millet system, and instead, his embrace of a virulent, intolerant nationalism, all the while pursuing an imperialist Pan-Turan goal of enlarging the Ottoman Empire eastward and removing all perceived obstacles such as the Christian Armenians. The book Talaat Pasha: Father of Modern Turkey, Architect of Genocide documents the regime’s ‘crimes against humanity’ imposed upon the Armenians and other Christians. As the tide of the war eventually shifted, Kieser describes the key genocide perpetrators’ surreptitious escape, with the assistance of the German military. Talaat’s secret and conspiratorial life in disguise, however, came to a dramatic end in Berlin in 1921, when he was assassinated by Soghomon Tehlirian; the subsequent trial made sensational headlines. The book concludes with the Turkish state’s rehabilitation of Talaat with the official return of his body to Istanbul during World War II.
Kieser makes a strong case that Talaat was the most influential within the Young Turk dictatorship. Emboldened by his experience in the Balkans, Talaat sought to “make Turkey strong again.” This ultra-nationalist theme, particularly when articulated by a charismatic leader, became popular among many, but at the expense of vulnerable minorities, a fact we can observe even in contemporary times.
Kieser observes that Talaat and other key leaders of the Young Turk Committee of Union and Progress had their roots in the European portion of the Ottoman Empire. As the Empire continued to shrink, the defeats in the Balkan Wars were a shock to Ottoman leaders. Masses of Muslim refugees forced to flee to Anatolia brought demographic destruction which increased inflamed hostilities towards Christians. The loss of much of the European portion of the Empire pushed Talaat and his revolutionary colleagues into embracing a radical, nationalist plan. The draconian blueprint would involve massive “violent demographic engineering.” Talaat had previously orchestrated the 1914 expulsion of 150,000 Christians who had resided along the Aegean Sea, and had them replaced with 250,000 Muslim refugees. The brutal ‘success’ of forcefully removing ethnic minority non-Muslims suggested a radical new paradigm involving a jihadist “total war” against both alleged internal and external enemies.
In pursuing this malevolent path, Talaat, the former telegraph operator, revealed substantial organizational skills and was influenced by the key ideologue Ziya Gokalp. They both embraced a virulent blend of intolerant, exclusionary nationalism, ruthless Social Darwinism, a dictatorial form of governing and a war-inclined aggressive and expansionist pan-Turan imperialism. It was a deadly mix that would be a catalyst for Turkish genocidal policies.
Kieser documents how the Special Organization (SO) paramilitary, originally intended to foment Muslim rebellion in Christian controlled foreign lands, became, like Hitler’s Nazi Einsatzgruppen in WW II, notorious mass killing units. Ironically, the SO worked under the direction of two medical doctors: Dr. Bahaeddin Shakir and Dr. Selanikli Nazim.
While demographic engineering and mass killing are central to the study of genocide, another important component is “mass plunder.” A key motive in the Armenian Genocide was the forcible expropriation of properties and economic transfer of wealth from one group (Christians) to another (Muslims), a theme echoed in Confiscation and Destruction: The Young Turk Seizure of Armenian Property by Ugur Ugor and Mehmet Polatel.
The biography of Talaat reveals the main phases of the genocide: 1) the targeting of the Armenian leadership; 2) the mass killing of able-bodied men; 3) the removal of the civilian population from towns and villages to the desert in forced marches; 4) their homes then filled with Muslim refugees; 5) the starvation of Armenian survivors in concentration camps, along with another round of massacres; and 6) genocide denial.
Often overlooked in domestic studies of genocide are the international relations aspects. Donald Bloxham’s The Great Game of Genocide: Imperialism, Nationalism, and the Destruction of the Ottoman Armenians pioneered in the linkage of war and genocide. Kieser reinforces this view when he asserts that “the victorious defense at Gallipoli and the extermination of the Armenians were… intrinsically connected…” (233)
Kieser’s overall assessment of the Young Turk dictator is that “The destruction of Asia Minor’s Christians was the most momentous, trenchant, and elaborate act of Talaat’s political life.” (185) Despite this, two decades after Talaat’s assassination, his body came back to Turkey where the mass murderer was officially honored. It would have been useful to see more discussion on whether or not there is any shift in the current Turkish public attitude of celebrating its genocidal leaders. For example, is the current portrayal of Talaat in Turkey comparable to that of Hitler in Germany? Most Turks need to do a much better job at facing history.
With its extensive documentation, at more than 70 pages of notes and bibliography, and good selection of photos, many rarely previously seen, this major volume by Hans-Lukas Kieser is a well-researched and interesting read. It is destined to be an important contribution to our understanding of the Young Turk era and the Armenian Genocide.